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Gillyflowers

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Later, Sebastian always said it was the gillyflowers that made him come into Charles' room almost every night, even though his own rooms were so much nicer. The gillyflowers—purple, mostly, but some red, and some white—were achingly bright under his window, the sort of colour you couldn't look at if you had flu, and, if the air maintained the right sort of stillness, and Charles left the window open, you could smell them all night. It was a sweet smell, a smell much softer than their brightness, and it gave the room a certain freshness that even cigarette smoke and glasses of sherry and port and wine couldn't quite diminish.

Charles, in his turn, didn't really question Sebastian's motives, even when he sneaked in through the window, Aloysius held against his chest, past two or three o'clock in the morning. Sebastian would lie down on the bed next to Charles on many of those nights, shirtless, his back turned towards him, the fine vertebrae visible on his spine, holding Aloysius in his arms. Charles would watch him sleepily, watch his breathing even out, and then lie next to him, his body copying the shape of Sebastian's, even if he did not directly touch him.

Though many of their pleasures ranked among the greatest sins men could commit, they slept as innocently as brothers.

"Your rooms, Charles," Sebastian said one morning, "Your rooms smell as sweet as a baby bird's."

"Oh yes?" Charles said, and did not follow his immediate instinct to quibble on the sweetness, or lack there of, of baby birds and their quarters.

"Always," said Sebastian. He turned his face towards Charles, and Charles kissed it, first on the temple and then, soft, next to his mouth. "How do you manage it? You smell like sweat, and cheap wine."

Charles laughed. It was early; this time did not feel like a cessation of sleep, rather, a brief respite between sleeps, and the room was full of a soft light, a light that gave everything a certain blueness rather than turning it buttery yellow. "And you smell angelic, of course," he said.

He lifted Aloysius, gently, from Sebastian's arms. "And him?" he said.

"Oh, he always smells like honey. He's always got his paws in it. And he'd make mead if I'd let him."

"But of course you won't," Charles said.

"Well, would you, if you had a bear?"

"I expect not," Charles agreed. Sebastian rolled over and pressed his warm body and Aloysius's furry one against Charles' side. They were both too hot against him, but Charles didn't move them; instead he listened to Sebastian's breathing as it deepened and became more even. He did not sleep for a time himself, but stayed still, watching the changing light and smelt the gillyflowers, their sweetness more compelling than the tang of wine.

*

They went out, later, or perhaps it was another day, for all the days of that hot, bright term rolled into one long, bright day in Charles' mind and lay on the riverbank, the three of them.

"We don't know how lucky we are," Charles said, watching the slow brown river.

"Dearest," Sebastian said, "We know exactly how lucky we are. We know how fleeting this moment is, how irrevocably time will change us, how cold winter will be, how much we will miss one another if we are to be parted: we know this, but I for one am wise enough not to think of it."

"Oh," Charles said. He reached out and touched the pale skin on the inside of Sebastian's wrist. "I didn't know we knew."

"I knew," Sebastian said, and stretched out, dipping his index finger into the light water to feel it wash over her skin.

"I imagine us, sometimes," Charles said, "Crossing the Atlantic on a tiny boat."

"Whatever do you imagine that for?"

"I imagine deck chairs and our faces covered in salt water." He leant over to Sebastian, and took the cigar Sebastian was holding in his left hand, and then, holding it away from them, kissed him, his right hand cupping the back of Sebastian's head.

"Oh Charles, do be careful," Sebastian said.

"I needn't," Charles said. "No one can see us here." He didn't bother to put the cigar out, but when he kissed Sebastian again, Sebastian felt that it was a kiss that was intended to last along time, that it was a kiss that promised moist orifices and a tongue on his neck, even if it could not, at this moment, fulfil them.

*

"Mummy is a saint," Sebastian had said once. It was winter now, and all the gillyflowers had died. Aloysius lay on the bed between them. Charles had manipulated him so that he had a book lying on his lap, which he was holding open with his paws.

"She isn't a saint, darling," Charles said.

Sebastian stared at him, but let this pass without comment. He rolled on to his back and poured a glass of port, which he passed to Charles. "Sometimes I think we should drink summer drinks so we can forget that it is winter. A kir, you know, gin and tonic, that sort of thing."

Charles laughed. "Yes. We should buy some ice."

When it was dark, and it got dark early, the sky white and cold, and the streets damp with a cold, white mist, they lit candles in the windows. Charles brought his history books into Sebastian's rooms and laid them out on the floor.

"There aren't so many people now," Charles said.

"I found I couldn't remember their names," Sebastian said. "Only you and Aloysius. And Anthony, I suppose."

"Aloysius is in a better mood since I taught him to read," said Charles.

*

"I only want to be happy," Sebastian said.

The grass was stiff with frost, and all the puddles were frozen. Charles had given one or two passing thoughts to the birds who had nowhere to drink.

"Are you?"

"I don't know. Sometimes I couldn't say if anyone is."

Charles watched him. "Perhaps you shouldn't think about it too much. Everything is so much better in summer."

"It is rather, isn't it?" Sebastian said. He had little things delivered to his rooms: quails' eggs, bottles of crème de cassis, tappenade and little cheese biscuits, and they ate them slowly, forgoing proper meals for the little savoury squares and the creamy eggs.

Sometimes they spoke little for days, and Charles felt almost lonely. Sebastian drank and slept and drank and slept. He went outside in the cold mist and it seemed almost to swallow him, sticking to his face and chest like the saliva of some huge beast. He would watch the cold river and almost scream with a longing he couldn't name.

And then they would speak again, tentatively, across the quiet room, and the winter would stop seeming so cold. They lay in bed next to each other, putting their cold feet on the tender, warm flesh of the other. Sebastian lent across the divide and kissed Charles, slowly, warmly.

"Stop thinking about it," he said.

"About what?"

"Stop thinking about whether I'm happy or not, Charles. Just stop thinking about it."

*

In spring, Charles woke early one morning, when the mist was still clinging to the bottom of the buildings, and walked softly through the morning. He picked a posy of the first gillyflowers, though they were so small and fresh that he didn't want to pick too many, and they seemed almost to crumble in his hands.

But when he brought them back upstairs to Sebastian, they were still bright and sweetly fragrant. Sebastian woke up, brushed sleep out of his face, and registered Charles and the flowers. He smiled an entirely unqualified smile, his face almost painfully open.

"Is it summer again?" he said.